The Aegis accountant who is banking on digital

Aegis' chief Robert Lerwill has turned the company around largely thanks to digital investment. Darren Davidson reports.

Robert Lerwill, the Aegis chief executive, is in chipper mood. Aegis may have predators circling all around it but its investment in digital and market research companies seems to be paying off.

Just 18 months ago, Aegis Media's France powerhouse seemed in danger of disintegrating following several client smash and grabs from its embittered former European chiefs Bruno Kemoun and Eryck Rebbouh. But as Paris burned, Lerwill continued to pursue a digital acquisition strategy begun by his Australian predecessor Doug Flynn.

Madness, some said, when Aegis' European media operations still needed shoring up. But Lerwill, an accountant by background who faced flack for seeming a boring option on ascending to the chief executive job in February 2005, has largely been vindicated.

Last week, Aegis announced healthy first-half results that included the revelation that 19 per cent of its total revenues now come from digital sources, up from 13 per cent, and that it had landed a record $1.3 billion in new business during the first six months. Carat's capture of Adidas/Reebok was the new-business highlight.

Importantly, the stable door in France also seems to have been temporarily bolted with recent new-business wins including the EUR150 million SIG account, France's equivalent of COI.

The Aegis chief executive argues that his company cannot predict with certainty how the new media world will develop in coming years, but claims that Aegis will be at the heart of the action, wherever that is. He predicts digital advertising will account for 50 per cent of Aegis revenues within just two years.

He says: "A good thing is that the business model that seems to be developing is an advertising-driven one as opposed to a subscription-driven model. But, I think the models are by no means firmed up; things are moving very fast and what we have to be aware of is next year's MySpace. I mean MySpace or YouTube could be yesteryear. But, by being close to these developments we can work with clients and media owners to anticipate the next big thing."

Lerwill has just finished lunch with a group of Aegis shareholders and takes a short walk across the corridor of the glassy ABN building in the city's financial district to meet Campaign. He's short, stocky, quick-witted and has an armory of stats at his disposal. He enjoys reeling off one particular fact about how many hours teenagers in the US are currently spending online.

Lerwill, a non-executive director at Aegis before he took on the chief executive role, has grown used to the speculation surrounding Aegis. Especially following the gradual increase in the Havas chairman Vincent Bollore's stake in Aegis to 29 per cent. So does he find the constant takeover speculation an unwanted distraction?

"It comes with the job. It's up to me to manage the situation. We're not seeking attention but if it's there we will manage it in the best way for our staff, clients and our shareholders."

Bollore has been the most talked-about suitor and recently failed in a bid to land board representation at Aegis. Lerwill says of him: "He's a very successful businessman who has chosen to make a very substantial investment in Aegis. We have cordial relationships with him - he's our biggest shareholder; he's shown confidence in our company and we show him the proper respect that this deserves."

Beyond this, Lerwill won't be drawn on relations with Bollore or Aegis' future ownership. He's a man who displays an accountant's caution, having stayed in the profession until Sir Martin Sorrell appeared on the horizon and made him his first hiring at WPP. Lerwill admits he dreaded the prospect of becoming a partner in a big accountancy firm. "Twenty-five to 30 years of walking across the same corridor to see a partner didn't appeal," he says.

However, he dismisses criticisms that his lack of a media background is a hindrance to Aegis: "I don't think that any business should be so specialised that a good businessman or accountant can't understand it. Businesses are money in; money out, something left over. If you can't describe or analyse a business in a relatively simplistic way, then you haven't got the skill- set that is needed."

Lerwill's priority is to continue Aegis' digital drive and he is confident that the group is well-placed to take advantage of future opportunities. He believes the "knitting together" of Isobar's network, which includes the UK agency glue, the Swedish creative agency farfar and Carat's digital offering Diffiniti, is key to this.

The arrival of Mainardo de Nardis, to fill the vacant job of Aegis Media chief executive, should also take some of the weight from Lerwill's shoulders and could add impetus to Carat and Vizeum's new-business efforts. "I can't promise continued record growth but I can feel that there are going to be some good new-business wins in the second half," Lerwill says.

Before he takes his leave, Lerwill, the owner of more than one iPod docking stereo system, offers advice on which is the best and talks about the time he spends on You Tube viewing ads. "When you do a job like mine, you never think you've done enough. You wish there was another two hours in the day or a faster way to type on my BlackBerry because you can never be complacent. You've always got to be listening and interpreting."

Age: 54
Lives: Islington and Essex
Family: Married, five children
Last book read: Small Island
What's the best thing about having a global role? Two distinct
privileges. Seeing different cultural and economic activity wherever I
go. And spending time with the 14,000 people who make up Aegis
Favourite ad: Currently glue's www.aveaword.com for Mini. It's personal,
entertaining and interactive, just as good advertising should be
Hobbies: Travel and spectator sports
Motto: Impossible is nothing!